A Billionaire and His Bridge: The Fight Over Detroit's Ambassador Bridge

A little more than 30 years ago, Manuel "Matty" Moroun bought the vast Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. By doing so, Moroun, who is now 83 years old, not only claims the honor of being the only person to privately own a border crossing in the United States but he also enjoys a monopoly over one of the nation's busiest international trade routes. But now, as the Ambassador is starting to show its 81 years, Moroun has found himself in a heated battle with the cities on either end of his bridge, defending his claim to the lucrative trade business that takes place across the Detroit River each year.

While all of the parties agree that the Ambassador, which 9,000 cars a day cross, is past its prime, they are fighting bitterly on how to fix the problem. Two months ago, Canadian officials took matters into their own hands and offered to loan Michigan $550 million to start construction on a new bridge a couple of miles downriver from the Ambassador to be called the Detroit River International Crossing (or DRIC). Such a plan did not sit well with Moroun who argues that a new bridge would unfairly compete with the Ambassador and could potentially burden taxpayers.

Instead, Moroun proposes to put up between $400 million and $500 million to build a new six-lane bridge adjacent to the Ambassador. The old span would run as a back-up if needed, according to CNN Money. However, officials in Michigan and Canada contend that Moroun's plan is not enough and fails to meet security requirements. They argue that the region needs a new bridge -- regardless if Moroun's plan comes to fruition or not.

"One bridge is not enough to handle the truck traffic at the biggest border crossing in North America," says Bill Shreck, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, which is bidding to be part of a public-private partnership to help build the DRIC.

A By-the-Numbers Battle

Moroun, a trucking tycoon who is estimated to be worth $1.8 billion by Forbes, is lobbying the Michigan legislature to stop a bill to approve the DRIC, which is expected to be voted on this summer. He argues that the state has inflated the traffic needs in the area in order to push its plan through and that taxpayers will inevitably end up footing the bill for the DRIC should tolls not meet these optimistic projections.

The Michigan Department of Transportation says that the DRIC could generate $70.4 million in tolls in its first year -- a revenue stream that is desperately needed by Detroit's ailing economy -- and could grow to almost $240 million by 2040. It also claims that toll payers, not taxpayers, will be paying for the bridge.

The MDOT has also claimed that both the DRIC and the Ambassador Bridge would make money if the new span is built. But Moroun estimates that the state's bridge could take up to 75% of his commercial traffic, the biggest money maker for any bridge. The Ambassador is currently estimated to generate about $60 million a year in toll revenue, according to Crain's Detroit.

A Bridge with Big Backers

The DRIC has the backing of Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and the Big Three automakers, which have a big stake in the business of transporting goods across the U.S. border.

For General Motors, the issue is especially important. It employs 9,000 workers in Canada and builds some of its best-selling models there, including the Chevrolet Camaro. Likewise, Chrysler employs 11,000 workers in Canada where it produces the Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Grand Caravan, Dodge Charger, Dodge Challenger and Chrysler 300.

The border crossings are also critical to Ford (F), says Marcey Evans, a company spokeswoman, in an email. "On a typical day, 600 trucks carrying a full range of components, engines and completed vehicles cross the border between Ontario and Michigan," she says. " Anything that improves the flow of goods across the border will help to improve our business -- which is critical in today's intensely competitive marketplace.

Corrected: Previously, this story said that Moroun was planning to use the new span as a back up bridge if necessary, when in fact the plan is to use the old span as a back up bridge.

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avimpexp1

This new bridge all depends on one thing, that being, where the Canadians want it placed. The Canadian government has quietly been pushing for years a land border "pre-clearance" similar to what they now enjoy at several airports in Canada for air travelers. The Canadians naturally want the pre-clearance placed on the Canadian side of the border which in effect removes all US government authority to conduct a border search on vehicles as Canadian law would prevail at the check point. Canadian laws do not permit several aspects necessary to secure the American border that American authorities such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) have at their disposal. Thus we loose control of the border. Keep in mind that a person attempting to enter the US from Canada in a car even full of explosives / drugs etc can refuse a "pre-clrarance" search and turn around and drive away simple as that, and the Canadians have no authroity to search the car without a warrant. Put the checkpoint on the US side and it's a whole new ball game. Buyer beware!

July 08 2010 at 8:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
GirzH

whats the problem? If this is anything like the Peace bridge saga in Buffalo,
deciding a new bridge is needed is only the first step, then you have to spend the next twenty or so years deciding on what type bridge to build , and another twenty years or so to determine how to pay for it, all the while paying people to do studies with the money that could have been spent building it !

July 08 2010 at 8:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dahermit

Typical rich man. He may die at any moment, but he still wants to make more money he will never live to spend. Does he think that he can "take it with him?"

July 08 2010 at 8:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joe

20,000 jobs sent to Canada. Way to go USA. I guess those jobs aren't needed in Michigan. However, I can understand why they go to Canada, their empolyees don't demand extreme compensation. I believe the Unions have caused the loss of jobs here in the US. If employees were more reasonable with benifits we would not be seeing jobs going over seas. When will we wake up America?

July 08 2010 at 8:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sharon corey

What the heck is wrong with those Michigan Republicans! Holding up new jobs, new revenue etal just so Granholm won't get credit for a new bridge? The party of No and selfish political interest is still there? Vote 'em out Michigan....

July 08 2010 at 8:38 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
tommyjohn56

There is already another bridge (Port Huron/Sarnia) which is the shortest route to Toronto, from any US location, west of Toledo, OH. And it has lower tolls. The Detroit/Windsor bridge is only more convenient for traffic just between the two cities. Remember, Canada is on the south side of the Detroit bridge, making it a 20 mile longer route to Toronto or Buffalo, NY. Detroit is a geographically challenged city. With water on the south and east, I-275 to the west, and I-696 along the north; nobody had to enter the city proper, unless they want to (which most people don't). Population 1950 > 2,000,000; 2010 est. 850,000. Another Detroit bridge would be a waste of public money. If it makes sense let private financing come forward, and take the operating cost risk.

July 08 2010 at 8:37 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Paschals

Two words - eminent domain. This is a ridiculous situation that shows the idiocy of allowing solely private ownership of infrastructure.

July 08 2010 at 8:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dgg1717

Many residents in Detroit think Mr. Moroun is jerk because he not only owns the bridge, but also the land on each side of the bridge (mostly in Detroit). The "jerk" title is earned because not much can happen on or around the bridge without his hand in the transportation industry's pocket. Having said this, I'd have to say he's done a damn fine job. While there are occassional backups on the bridge it usually flows quickly. His rates are also reasonable for such a critical landmark. Go ahead and let the government spend / borrow your money and see how good of a job they can do. I have no doubt it will be another mess!

July 08 2010 at 8:34 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
roger

The moroon doesn't have enough money yet....How in the world did two countries borders ever become the exclusive property of some trucker who is only interested in padding his own 83 year old pocket. Give it up you medicare using gereatric old mizer. Why don't you just shut up and get out of the way!!

July 08 2010 at 8:30 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
pedge

DEATH AND WAR ARE WHAT WE HAVE COMING TO US. THE PRICE WE PAY FOR GREED AND HUBRIS.

July 08 2010 at 8:27 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply